Update: The original article was corrected on December 16, 2020 to clarify information in regards to the number of murals painted, their location and on the project’s origins.
Artist Hillel Smith’s menorah won’t be put on the shelf at the end of Chanukah. It’s a mural he painted on an outside wall of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center facing the parking lot.
Last week, before the first night of Chanukah, former Edlavitch president Mindy Strelitz climbed a 17-foot ladder and spray-painted a flame atop the first candle.
“I feel very honored to have anything to do with the Edlavitch DCJCC. Very honored,” Strelitz said when she was back on the ground.
Smith’s mural was one of eight painted by nine Jewish artists across the United States and Canada for the 2020 Jewish Street Art Festival, which Smith organized.
“I’m really thrilled that we’re each adding color, energy, life and culture back into our communities,” Smith said. “And if that’s our mission for this year, I think we’ll have done something really positive.”
The 17.5-by-17.5-foot mural depicts a tree with each of its eight flames to be spray painted on as yellow leaves.
Smith, 36, creates public art pieces and does illustrations and graphic design work for Jewish nonprofits.
He painted his first Jewish mural about seven years ago in Los Angeles, where he grew up, out of a desire to add to the city’s multicultural street art scene. He said large public art displays have a way of sparking conversation and bringing joy to people’s lives.
Smith enjoys painting mural art “because it’s just a way of putting art in front of people when they’re not necessarily expecting it.”
Over the years, Smith met or learned of other Jewish mural artists and decided to create an event to bring them all together.
So in 2019, he organized the Jewish Street Art Festival in conjunction with the Jerusalem Biennale, the largest event for contemporary Jewish art in the world. A team of artists from around the globe painted 18 murals around Jerusalem over the course of three weeks.
In 2020, Smith wanted to hold a sequel over the summer in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic dealt a blow to his plan.
Smith originally planned on postponing the festival, but Chasidic pop artist Yitzchok Moully pitched him an idea on how to adapt it to COVID-19. Previously, Moully had painted a menorah mural in response to a shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J. So he had the idea to have other artists do the same.
Smith began coordinating with other artists in early November and garnered financial support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s Grassroots Events program.
“We’re really allowing these artists to bring Jewish art back to their communities, especially at this time where everything is difficult, and people are really searching for a kind of community as well,” Smith said of the project.
Smith said he wanted to paint his mural in a place with a Jewish connection, but not a synagogue. Edlavitch CEO Dava Schub said the wall facing the parking lot was a great place for a mural. Since the pandemic began, the lot has been used as a drop-off point for the JCC’s preschoolers. So the mural will be one of the first things they see when they arrive in the morning.
“The idea of driving by and seeing something that surprises and delights you and brings joy to the holiday feels meaningful,” Schub said.
Smith painted the mural over two days with help from the preschoolers. They painted leaves at the bottom of the mural.
Eric Goldberg, who lives near the center, said he heard about the mural and wanted to watch the first flame painted on.
“When you walk past here, you can’t help but be just filled with light and filled with hope,” Goldberg said of the mural. “It’s really inspiring and really necessary in these times.”